J-pop singer Akanishi sets his sights on America

by Edan Corkill

One of Japanese pop’s more restless stars has found a home. Jin Akanishi, who for nine years had an on-and-off relationship with J-pop group Kat-tun, has signed a contract for global representation as a solo artist with Warner Music Group.

The 26-year-old Akanishi becomes only the third Japanese performer to sign with U.S.-based WMG, following in the footsteps of 61-year-old legend Eikichi Yazawa and heavy-metal band Loudness, both of whom have since parted ways with the company.

The signing was announced in Tokyo on Dec. 9 by Lachie Rutherford, the president of Warner Music Asia Pacific and chairman and CEO of local subsidiary Warner Music Japan.

“I was impressed with (Akanishi’s) vision and the high aspirations he has for his career. He is a first-class entertainer,” Rutherford said to explain the signing. He also praised Akanishi for writing and arranging most of his songs.

Akanishi, who was also present at the press conference, said that the move to a global label was a natural progression for him.

“I was concentrating on doing what I wanted to do and it ended up like this,” he said.

Exactly what Akanishi “wanted to do” has been the subject of speculation for several years now. Having joined talent agency Johnny & Associates in 1998, he became a member of boy band Kat-tun in 2001. However, in October 2006, just seven months after the group released their first single, “Real Face” (which spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Oricon chart), Akanishi announced he was suspending his participation in the band indefinitely so he could go to study in the United States.

After returning to Japan in April 2007, Akanishi appeared in television dramas and took on the lead role of a rock star in the 2010 film “Bandage” — a role for which Japan Times critic Mark Schilling praised him as “the real rock star deal.” He kicked off his career as a solo artist by singing the title track for that film and the song went to No. 1 in Japan in late 2009.

Since then, things have moved quickly for Akanishi. In June, he performed two shows in Los Angeles before later confirming his withdrawal from Kat-tun, and then going to the United States again in November to hold concerts in five cities. Those shows all sold out, attracting more than 2,000 fans each.

WMG’s press release to announce the signing states that many artists of Asian origin are now finding success in the U.S. market, noting such acts as the electro-hop unit Far East Movement and Philippine starlet Charice. It seems that WMG hopes that Akanishi’s rap- and R&B-inspired pop will emulate that success.

At the press conference, Akanishi was asked by a Japanese journalist to introduce himself in English. “Even though we’re in Japan?” he asked good-naturedly, before switching to casual-sounding American: “This is Jin Akanishi. Nice meeting you. Now I am a singer (based in Japan), but I just started singing in America and (I will) try to reach out to a bigger audience.”

Explaining that his mother often listened to Western music when he was growing up, Akanishi said he didn’t find writing songs in English any more difficult than writing in Japanese.

Akanishi’s signing with WMG does not affect his representation by Johnny & Associates. In fact, he becomes the first member of the legendary Japanese talent agency to debut in the U.S. as a solo performer.

Akanishi will perform six shows in Japan in January before releasing his first single with WMG in spring. That will be followed by an album and a U.S. tour.

Jin Akanishi’s “Yellow Gold 3010″ tour hits Saitama Super Arena on Jan. 14-16; Osaka-Jo Hall in Osaka on Jan. 21-23. For more information, visit www.jinakanishi.us.